Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Don't Scan too Closely

A Scanner Darkly, Richard Linklater 2006.

Choosing to make a film that is based on a book, a semi-famous book at that, is always a risky proposition. As the director you've immediately put yourself into the unenviable position of trying to create a piece of work that will not only appeal to a general audience but will also appease those large segments of people who live, breathe, and love the piece of literature you are about to have the 'audacity' to meddle with.

And if only it was that simple. But things can be broken down a step further. There are those people who believe a film adaptation should be word for word, page for page verbatim to which the original literature piece the adaptation is based.

Personally I don't fall into that category. I believe that it is expected that a film will change, modify, and mold that beloved piece of literature into something new. Not only will you have envisioned things differently than the director, but despite some protest to the contrary, film is its own artistic medium and a director is bound to put his own artistic imprint on said piece.

So it is with this frame of mind I would walk into a film such as A Scanner Darkly. However, I personally haven't read Philip K. Dick's story that this film is based on, so if you are looking for any scoop on how accurate the film adaptation is you need read no longer.

The other much talked about aspect of this film is the choice to use the unique animation technique called rotoscoping. I personally have no issues with animation, sometimes even going so far as to be a proponent of the medium (Miyazaki's work would be a prime example). The animation is actually quite well done, my only complaint being that it seemed that the film occasionally lost some of its emotional impact due to the rotoscoping format. Actually I've not really decided whether or not it was the rotoscoping or simply how Linklater chose to utilize it that was the problem.

Either way the film is an enjoyable ride. Not much occurs through its duration other than talking. Think continual conversations such as the ones Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta have in Pulp Fiction. Interesting, funny, but ultimately more shallow than it would like to appear.

And I think that's what really got me about the film. Maybe I've been spoiled after such a great piece of filmmaking like Bladerunner, but there just doesn't seem to be anything anchoring this particular film to the ground. When I saw Bladerunner I was left thinking about it for days. Contemplating everything from the cool set design to some of the interesting issues the film touches upon. It also made me go and read Philip K. Dick's orginal story.

As much as I would like too, I can't say the same thing about A Scanner Darkly. The film has some great scenes and great moments ultimately it fell short of the expectations I had set for it. Perhaps I was asking for too much. It's fun and generally entertaining, but don't expect too much.

**and a half stars.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Sydney International Film Festival 2006 Review

Well with my last review of Into Great Silence (if you haven't read that yet, stop reading this and read it!!!!) that brings my reports from the Sydney International Film Festival to a close.

It was quite the interesting two weeks. I spent most of it sick with bronchitis, yet I was still galavanting around between three different theaters around town, hopped up on antibiotics while trying to not to lose a lung.

I didn't know I had it in me to manage to essentially spend 5-10+ hours a day at the movie theater for two weeks straight, but I managed it. I do have to say I was exhuasted by the time it was all over. Besides that, I wouldn't have traded the experience for anything. Being a slightly smaller festival when compared to the likes of a Canne and other massive festivals the smaller environment made the filmmakers, actors etc much easier to approach and have access to if you had questions or simply wanted to chat. I'm still waiting for my friend to email me the photos she kindly took of me the at the opening night film and after party, but trust me it was a good time.

There were a couple of films I had to leave off of my reviews, namely a slew of short films and God on My Side but that is mainly because I've barely managed to squeeze in what I have and as far as God on my Side, well I'm still stewing that one over....its a film that definitely could spark debate and I'd like to word my thoughts extra carefully.

Oh and I missed Thank You For Smoking on closing night because I thought it would be more fun to visit the hospital......any way I'm fine, just missed out on a great night and from what I hear a great film.

Any way I thought it would be appropriate to end my coverage of the festival with a comparison of my favorites and the audience favorites. So without further ado.....

Best Feature (Audience): Little Miss Sunshine (ME): Adam's Apples
Best Feature Sidebar...played in smaller venues....(Audience): Fearless (ME): A Perfect Day
Best Documentary(Audience): An Inconvenient Truth (ME): Abstain
Best Doc Sidebar(Audience): Balanda and the Bark Canoes (ME): Into Great Silence

If you are curious as to all the awards and vote tallies etc, you can see them here:

Well, I hope you enjoyed my thoughts on the films from SFF 2006. Feel free to ask me any questions if I like....

Sydney Film Festival 2006: Into Great Silence

Into Great Silence, directed by Philip Groning 2005.

And the Lord passed by.
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind.
After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire.

And after the fire came a gentle whisper.
1 Kings 19: 11-13

I honestly am tempted to simply make this post one collage of still images from the film so completely does it embody the visual medium of cinema.

Into Great Silence was one of the very first films to jump out and catch my eye when I was perusing the online catalog of films for the festival. Later, when I had to pick which films I would see it was one of the first I marked off. Finally, we had an opportunity to sit down and chat with the artistic director of the Sydney International Film Festival, Lynden Barber, and when I asked him about this film he basically said it was a film that you will either completely love or absolutely hate, but either way it was the very first film of the festival to sell out. In a festival complete with 200 films of varying nature, it says something that the first film to sell out was a three hour that has less than 15 minutes of actual dialogue!

If you haven't managed to guess yet, I fall into the the former category.

Philip Groning first approached the monks of the Carthusian order back in the late 1980's about doing a documentary on them. Their response was that perhaps they would be ready in ten, maybe 15 years. 16 years later Groning received notice from the monks they were finally ready. 3 years later the film was finished and Into Great Silence was revealed to the public.

For those that are a little unfamiliar with the Carthusian monks, they reside in the French alps and follow a strict vow of silence. Living their lives in contemplation of their surroundings, the scripture, and God, the monks lives are simple yet there is something innately attractive about a lifestyle uncluttered with the noise and hustle of the average modern daily routine.

The film ends up being as much of a meditative experience as a documentary. There is no "soundtrack" to speak of, the only sounds being the ambient sounds of shoes on the floor or insects in the the glade. Amidst this "natural silence" is the occasional shattering of the quiet with the searingly beautiful notes of the monks songs.

Their chants roll like soft waves across the darkened chambers of the sanctuary. The screen is completely dark save the soft red flicker of one lone candle at the far end of the chamber. The darkness is punctured momentarily as a light turns on illuminating a monks face as he turns the page of the hymnal in front of him. It is a beauty that wraps you in its warmth and than drags you into the depths of your own soul. Completing this transition is cut to the outside of the monastery, draped in pristine white snow, in the middle of night, while the cinematograpy has been speed up, revealing the rotation of the earth as the stars fly past the tops of the surrounding mountain peaks.....and the monks chant on......

And so it goes for three hours. You see the monks get their hair cut, you see them eat, you seem them pray, tend the garden, feed the cats, even take some time to have fun sliding down the snowy mountain side on their feet until they fall down laughing. There is no narration, there is only visuals and your own inner monologue.

A documentary is designed to inform, to make you understand an issue or get a glimpse of a place, people, or culture. By the time Into Great Silence is finished I felt like I had been living with them, and that's about as high of praise as I can think of for a documentary film.

Predictably, as the film moved forward, the audience slowly left. The lady next to me kept pestering her husband, "God, will it ever end??" It came to me as I left the theater, almost half the audience could not still for 3 hours. They could not handle this silence filled with pristine beauty and the most meditative of moving experiences. How much more impressive is it that these monks live like this for their entire life?

Honestly I found myself seriously considering if I could handle the life that these amazing people have willingly chosen for themselves. There is something starkly alluring about leaving all the ridiculous noise of our daily routines for something simple, something beautiful. To be able to have all the time in the world to explore yourself, our world, and persue whatever form you may believe. In some ways I think I could, in others I feel I probably would fall shamefully short.

While the monks do take a vow of silence, they are, very, very, very occasionally allowed to talk and on one such occasion one of the oldest monks, who is blind, takes the time to talk about his faith and his views on God. It is oddly touching and stands starkly in relief to the overwhelming silence of the film.

If it comes out on DVD you know I will be going on about it so keep your eyes peeled. In conclusion I will leave you with another shot of the film.
P.S. Here are a couple of links in relation to the film:
Official website:
Website with trailer (be patient as it is a tad slow to load):
****Four Stars

Sydney Film Festival 2006: Battle in Heaven

Battle in Heaven, directed by Carlos Reygadas 2005.

Words really can't describe how disappointed I was in this film. Billed as a highly controversial and though provoking piece of cinema, I found the film to be an excercise numbing the mind with its flacid content and penchant for excessively graphic images.

The only thing controversial about this film seems to be the fact that they have an attractive woman fully nude engaging in various sex acts with a much older mexican man who is also fully nude. This is not the "soft" simulated sex scenes you might find on a chessy late night cinemax flick. It's the real deal, or as close to as real as you can get without grabbing that XXX classification.

But don't get me wrong while that type of content is not my first choice on the list of things I'd like to see in a film, if its there I'll stick it out, if there's good reason for it. There is and was a lot of people completely enraged at the screenings of this film, purely because of its graphic quality, but really if you've seen any film such as In the Realm of the Senses than the graphic nature of Battle in Heaven pales in comparison.

The problem is, that's all there is too the film really. Perhaps there is some profound message that I am missing, but quite frankly the movie was so boring, in my opinion, that I was spending most of my energy trying to stay awake after awhile.

Ok, maybe I'm exxagerating a little bit on the sleeping part, but for good reason. Visually the movie is unimpressive, the acting is non-existent, and the music while sometimes inspired is not enough to save an otherwise horrid production.

I suppose I should at least tell you the premise of the film. Marcos works for a wealthy family and at somepoint shortly before the beginning of the film Marcos and his wife had kidnapped a baby. The only problem is the baby died on them by accident. So know Marcos is not in the best of situations. Any way he is still driving around his bosses daughter, who, for some unexplained reason, works at a 'secret' brothel. Oh and its obvious Marcos has a thing for Ana, his bosses daughter. Well Marcos needs to get things off his chest and he tells Ana what happened with the baby. This is where things should pick up (you would think) but Ana nonchalantly tells Marcos he should turn himself in and wanders off. The film meanders after this, and I have to mention.......since critics seemed to hail this as being particularly brave and daring.....even takes the time to show Marcos and his wife (both of whom weigh somewhere between 250-300lbs) having full on pornography style sex. Now I applaud the idea of 'normal' looking people having sex on screen rather than glam models, but there is a thing as carrying the point a little to far....personally I wouldn't want to subject anyone to having to see me nude on screen....much less having to witness a sex act involving people who are so overweight as to be putting themselves at severe health risks.

In the end, I kept asking myself where the film was going, what was it getting at, and what could I take from it. As hard as I tried a couldn't come up with a good answer. Personally, I would recommend that you save yourself the trouble and just rent In the Realm of the Senses by Nagisa Oshima. Much more graphic of a film, but at least there is some depth to the movie, and seeing as it came out in 1976 you'll quickly realize just how regressive a film like Battle in Heaven really is.

*One Star

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Sydney Film Festival 2006: Secuestro Express

Secuestro Express, directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz 2005.

For those that don't know, Secuestro Express stands for 'kidnapping express'. It is not uncommon for people to be kidnapped in Caracas, Venezuela as a means to acquire a quick influx of income. The idea being that a kidnapping is made, a ransom immediately is demanded and within 24 hours the ransom has been received leaving the kidnapping victims to be randomly dropped somewhere.....shook up and emotionally hurt but otherwise ok.

This is the basis for the film and after a short, Guy Ritchie-esque intro to each of the main characters in the film, Carla and Martin are kidnapped by five men and there families are informed that a total of 60,000 (40,000 for Carla and 20,000 for Martin) is wanted for their well being.

The movie actually starts with a a very well done mixture of introduction fictional footage and a decent length montage of actual documentary footage which drives home the point that what is witnessed in the film may be 'fictional' but it is by no means fictional. What you witness in this movie in essence happens with frequent regularity.

As such this movie is not for the feint of heart. The ride it takes the audience on starts of dark and only gets darker and more intense as the film goes on. I found myself coming out of this film completely drained, more so than any film I've seen at the festival, with maybe the exception of Ahlaam. This is mainly because it is so real in its nature and subject matter. No matter what occurs in the film, your mind never detaches itself from the documentary footage seen at the beginning.

Take a look at your typical ransom type film in America. Generally the plot and narrative structure of the film will follow something like this: Introduction to nice family/characters, innocent character than kidnapped, ransom made and police are to not be involved, protagonist either involves police any way or simply becomes the hero himself, and rest of film follows protagonist as the kidnappers almost win but turn out to be ultimately defeated.

Secuestro Express is about as diametrically opposed to this structure as you can possibly get. Carla is the only character who comes close to approaching innocence in the film, especially since Martin becomes less and less an endearing character as the film moves forward. The cops are not involved in the story, there is no hero. Instead the director puts you right in close with the kidnappers and the kidnapping victims for the entire film and the dramatic tension is amplified because of it.

The movie ends up revealing itself to be a mish-mash concern of local class conflict, but more deeply it involves the overall social condition of much of the world. This may not be an exact quote but the film ends with a brief narration stating that "You can either kill the monster or become it". To me what I took from the film and this quote was that we have one of too choices. We can choose to help combat the problems facing our world...things such as poverty, starvation, malnutrition, greed, excessive materialism...or we simply are becoming part of the problem.

I haven't even mentioned the more technical aspects of the film, but suffice it to say they are all well done, especially the acting considering most of the cast is comprised of non-professionals. Mia Maestro, who is one of the only professional cast members, has the looks and acting talent to become the next major actress to make it big, following in the footsteps of Selma Hayek and Penelope Cruz.

A great film, just a really tough ride.

****Four Stars.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Sydney Film Festival 2006: My Nikifor

My Nikifor, directed by Krzysztof Krauze 2004.

My Nikifor is a Polish film based on the life of their famous amatuer artist Nikifor. The film eschews the traditional biopic formula and chooses to focus only on the last years of his life rather than follow the typical path of how he came to be an artist, what trials he went through etc. Depending on your tastes this can be a good or a bad thing, but for me personally I thought it was a good thing.

With the narrow temporal scope of the film, I felt more time was spent with the character of Nikifor, delving into this deeply eccentric persona and exploring the depths of a person shaped and worn through the many years of his life.

This film has been billed as a comedy, something that I was glad I didn't notice until after I had seen the movie. If you go into it expecting a comedy you will be sure to be disappointed. This is a dramatic piece. A good one at that.

Nikifor is played by actress Krystyna Feldman and the performance she turns in is absolutely stunning. I wanted to refuse to believe that Nikifor was being played by a woman even as the credits rolled at the end, so completely does she embody her role. Complimenting Feldman is Roman Gancarczyck who plays Marian, a working artist who somehow managed to find himself stuck with the unbearable Nikifor.

And thus a relationship begins in frustration but through the course of time develops into something different, one of admiration, oddly mentor-like and carrying shades of a father/son dynamic.

At times the film drags, but there is enough there to keep the film moving towards a touching, but not overly done ending. As far as biopics go, this film was wonderfully refreshing. Less melodrama, more character, good film.

***Three Stars

Sydney Film Festival 2006: A Side, B Side, Seaside

A Side, B Side, Seaside: Directed by Wing-Chiu Chan 2005.

Falling into the category of films like Ghost World, and American Graffitti, A Side....follows the two seperate story lines involving kids who are growing up and moving apart as school ends and real life begins.

The film is told in three seperate parts, and overall it is a enjoyable glimpse into the joys and fears that comes with the coming of age that I think is universal no matter what culture you live in. It should be noted that the film is a little rough around the edges and could have used a little more polish, but this does not ruin what is otherwise a great film.

The first part follows Honey and three of her friends who are embarking on their summer holiday. We first see them as they manage to trick random pedestrians into giving them money so they can buy an adult vcd. Once this is accomplished they are off to spend what is sure to be an adventurous summer.

Keeping the focus on the dynamics between the three friends this part of the film is less about the actual events of their holiday and more about what comprises friendship. If you can remember spending the summer romping around with a couple good friends, with nothing to worry about but is immediately in front of you, then you'll have a good idea how this first part of the film plays out.

The second part of the film focuses on a different group of characters who happen to be in the same location. This time it is three best friends, two guys and one girl, and they have just been reunited with each other after having not seen each other for some time. It provides a nice counter-part to the earlier story line, and easily could be seen as representative to where Honey and her friends might find themselves in a few years time.

Finally the third part of the film attempts to tie things together, returning to Honey as she embarks on her journey to Beijing to start a new chapter in her life.

The best word I can use to describe this film is that its 'endearing'. I only wish the director chose not to play around with various camera tricks. He seemed to have a penchant for having the film play in reverse and it seemed to jar with the overall nature of the film. It was almost as if the director was not confident that the story alone would be enough to hold the audience's interest and threw in snazzy camerawork to try and liven things up......only he didn't need to, resulting in the illusion of the film being broken at the most random moments.

Still it was a good film, and one that I personally enjoyed.

***Three Stars

Sydney Film Festival 2006: Something like Happiness

Something Like Happiness, directed by Bohdan Slama 2005.

I really should have more to write about this film than I do, so I apologize ahead of time for the brevity of this review.

A Czech film that embodies everything that is great about independent art cinema, Something Like Happiness is a simple story about real people. The two main characters of the story Tonik and Monika take care of two children basically abandoned by their mentally unstable mother and one time friend of both of them. Amidst this, Tonik struggles to simply survive and keep his house, Monika awaits news from her boyfriend who has gone to America, and multiple other subplots emerge and disappear as they do in anyone's daily lives.

And in that way, this is what makes the film so interesting. It simply feels so real and down to earth. This fosters a sense of identification with the characters and the audience finds themselves pulling for the characters as they fight through their day to day struggles.

It's simple, its sweet, and its never quite 'happiness'.....but sometimes its the simplest things that can create the most pleasurable experiences...

***and a half stars

Sydney Film Festival 2006: Ahlaam

Ahlaam, directed by Mohammad Al-Daradji

According to the film festival program this film was shot in the streets of Baghdad during the US invasion in 2003, the cast and crew being subjected to kidnappings from both sides. After seeing this film I can believe every word of it.

Ahlaam is one of those films that leaves you completely emotionally drained when you leave the theater. The film is so immediate and in your face that you can't help but be swept up and carried away by the horrors of war and systematic devestation on the essence of humanity that fills the screen in front of you.

Jumping back and forth in time, the story follows the lives of three seperate individuals as their lives are simply ripped from under them. And by lives, I am referring to what makes these characters human. Confronted with the horrors of war on both the big scale and the smaller but infinitely more personal level, the charactes break down becoming mentally unstable or simply infantile in nature.

Surrounding the story line of these characters is the abundance of footage that simply could not have been staged, which lends a potent realism to the experience that left me amazed that the film was ever completed.

What really caused this film to rise to the top in my mind was its refusal to take sides. This is not a film preaching against the US or condeming Islamic fundemental extremists. This is film that simply shows that in situations like this, everyone is ugly, everyone is an animal, and no one is right. In that sense it is an anti-war film, but more importantly it is a vibrant document of on-going events that are sure to have long lasting, unforseen ramifications in the global arena.

****Four Stars

Sydney Film Festival 2006: Gravehopping

Gravehopping, directed by Jan Cvitkovic 2005.

A dark comedy that centers on a professional funeral speaker? I knew this one had to be good and Gravehopping more than lived up to my expectations.

The Slovenians seem to have an innate dark sense of humor and from the get go this came to the forefront in the film. Wasting no time, the film's first lines of dialogue are from Pero, the funeral speaker, quoting the infamous Australian serial killer Chopper, "Not everyone lives, but everyone dies." I should add that in the background the funeral band is playing "I Will Survive" polka style..... I know that's what I would like to be said and played at my funeral =).

Shortly after that there is a sequence where Pero almost falls from the window trying to put up a Slovenian flag on his house to celebrate their Independence day. Barely catching himself on the mounted flag holder, he hangs perilously from the wall of the second floor while his son looks up and drills him with questions about why they celebrate their independence day.....then Pero falls.....its a starkly black comedic moment and the type of humorous moments that are typical in this film.

As far as the story is concerned, the film takes it's time exploring the everyday lives of Pero, his family and the people they know. Interestingly, just when you think the movie can't get any darker, it does, and continues to progressively get more and more dark, shedding some of its humor for a very serious ending to the film. Somehow it works and what started out as a fun, black comedy ends as a dark dramatic piece that is deeply touching.

The film is comprised of some highly impressive technical cinematography, and like Dam Street there is moments, one in particular, where the image on the screen will forever stick with me. I'd describe it for you, but it just wouldn't be right and would ruin what is otherwise an incredibly powerful, emotional scene.

A film like this would fail if the characters weren't well constructed an interesting, but thankfully there is a great variety of likeable, colorful characters. From Pero's father who keeps trying to kill himself, to Pero's best friend Suki who is obsessed with cars to the point that he attaches blades on the wheels of his VW bug after seeing a classic chariot race movie on TV, each character is unique and entertaining.

In my mind Gravehopping is what independent film is all about.....

****Four Stars